November 10, 1910 – November 28, 2009
Photo by Alexa Wing.
It was Labor Day weekend 1963. I was visiting my girlfriend Kate’s parents in their Vermont summer home. In the course of conversation over lunch and very fine old cheeses, her mother asked me, “So what is it you do?” I explained that I had just been fired from my job as an animal handler at a pet shop in Manhattan because I wanted to the take holiday weekend off. She raised one eyebrow and said, “Why don’t you talk to Jim Jackson at The Twentieth Century show at CBS. I think they are looking for some help.” That job at CBS as a messenger began my life-long career as a film editor and friend of the editor, teacher and mentor Lora Hays, who died November 28 at the age of 99.
A few years later, I worked as her assistant editor on several documentaries, including 16 at Webster Grove, The Berkeley Rebels and The Great American Novel series for Arthur Baron. In later years, I was a guest lecturer many times at her NYU graduate class. She was a brilliant editor who reworked and reworked her cuts and then thought about them and reworked them again. She was also an extremely generous mentor, offering me many opportunities to edit sequences on my own, and lobbying producers to get extra help so I could continue to cut when time grew short.
Lora was the eldest daughter of Arthur Garfield Hays, the civil rights lawyer and founder of the American Civil Liberties Union. She attended Carnegie Technical Institute (now Carnegie Mellon University) studying theatre and doing summer stock with Katharine Hepburn. As an actress in France, she starred in the Prévert brothers’ film L’Affaire est dans le sac. She also worked as an aide to her father at the Reichstag trial in Berlin on behalf of Georgi Dimitrov, a Bulgarian Communist accused by the Nazis in 1933 of burning the Reichstag.
A portrait of Laura Hays circa 1930, when she was 19 or 20 years old. Courtesy of Linda Kenyon
Returning to the US in the 1930s, she became an assistant editor to Joris Ivens in 1938, beginning a long career as a freelance documentary editor. She worked for the Office of War Information during World War II and the United Nations after the war. Subsequently, she edited features, documentaries and TV dramas at Paramount, ABC, NBC, CBS and WNET-Channel 13. In the 1950s, she edited a number of episodes of You Are There (hosted by Walter Cronkite) and I Remember Mama. Other well-known TV films bearing the distinctive Hays style and depth, and reflecting her passion for social activism, include From Montgomery to Memphis, Harlan County, USA (Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1976) and The Last to Know, which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1981. In the 1980s, Lora began teaching a popular course on film editing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, directly influencing developing filmmakers over the next 20-plus years.
Well after her 85th birthday, Lora produced as well as edited a number of other films containing socially relevant themes, such as Tell It Like It Is for the National Coalition Against Censorship and Bread and Roses, with her NYU colleague, the documentarian George Stoney (“the father of the American documentary”). In 2002, she was honored for her extraordinary career and contributions to the film industry by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
She continued as a film editor and an editing professor until May 2007, when she suffered a stroke. Even in her two remaining years, she critically reviewed and continued to offer advice on independent films by her colleagues and former students, most recently, What’s Organic About Organic? by Shelley Rogers.
As a lifelong resident of Greenwich Village, Lora loved the ways one could appreciate country life within the city. She was passionate about Greenmarket and, well into her 90s, regularly walked up to Union Square for fresh produce and rode her bicycle down the Hudson River bike path to Battery Park.
Lora lived her life fully and passionately, and represented an age when editors brought experience and knowledge from life outside of the cutting room to enrich the choices they made in their work.
– Peter C. Frank, A.C.E.